Discovering the Relevance of Words
In his fantastic book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson begins with an invitation to think about just how lucky each of us is to exist. He discusses how, so many millions of years ago and against all rational odds, the conditions on this planet became suitable for life, and how that life found a way to flourish. But even so, the path from those first organisms to us was not a safe one. It was winding and dark and full of danger. He reminds us that the number of things that had to go right to produce anything like humanity is truly mind-boggling.
99% of all species that have ever existed on this planet have gone extinct. Yet somehow all of my ancestors, human and otherwise, managed not only to be born into a species that did not die out, but to live long enough to reproduce themselves.
I’m thinking about all these things as I sit at my desk and stare at gossip websites and pop-up ads that disguise themselves as interesting and make me watch commercials for cars I will never buy. If he were here, Bill Bryson might tell me that some of the same atoms that now make up the hands typing this sentence once belonged to Philip of Macedon. He may remark on how the same basic building material that constituted my crappy laptop once burned in the heart of a star, as he offered me some tea. He might also wonder why, if I already knew of my illustrious pedigree and universal sense of destiny, I was sitting here in the semi-darkness of my office reading about how Jenny McCarthy is causing some real controversy since taking over for that other crazy blonde on The View.
“It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you’re reading something.”
I had a professor in college who found that statement infuriating. Of course it matters what you read. I can’t remember his exact argument, but I think it came down to math, which is weird for an English professor. His point, I think, is that there is more stuff out there that is proven to be good than one person can read in a lifetime. If your goal was to read all the real literature humanity had to offer, every summer paperback or Stephanie Meyer atrocity you picked up would burn reading time you don’t have.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this. The only problem I have is that it makes it all sound like work.
It is absolutely true that some books are better than others. But I think that, in time, a reader learns to tell the difference. Reading is a skill, like juggling. You start off slow, but with lots of practice and perseverance pretty soon you’re doing flaming bowling pin tricks and considering adding a running chainsaw. Crowds love a chainsaw.
It’s possible that juggling was a bad example, but you get my point. A smart person with a library card can teach themselves to spot good writing just by reading widely. After a while, good readers will find themselves unable to focus on a book that isn’t written well. Once enough time is invested, it won’t be a question of reading the books you want to read or reading the books you should. As your skill as a reader becomes honed to a razor edge, you won’t stand for anything less from your reading material.
I don’t want to sound like a snob, but in a lot of ways I totally am. Not that I demand all the best in a Robin Leach, MTV Cribs, rich kid, irritating kind of way. Those who know me know that I still eat like a college kid and drink wine from a bag.* But I do demand the best from my entertainment. It’s a totally different kind of irritating.
It’s also more than a little hypocritical, since I started out this post by talking about how I was reading articles from the Yahoo! homepage and drinking tea with an imaginary Bill Bryson. Well, guilty as charged, I guess. Luckily, I can justify reading this crap by blogging about it. That’s another writer’s tip I learned from that same professor. Nothing is wrong if you can justify it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, that Jenny McCarthy is making a lot of sense about corn syrup and autism, though I suspect she doesn’t really need those glasses and is just wearing them to look smart.
It isn’t working.
*Yes. I take the bag out of the box and drink from that, because I live like a shitpig.